This morning there was a news item that I found as part of my morning start-the-computer-and-get-ready-for-the-day routine. The headline was "Dad charged with murder." I knew this would be a trigger for me. I'm a bit obsessive about fathering/child issues, as anyone who knows my well-worn soapbox can tell you, but I read it anyway.
Basically, this local guy got so frustrated with his 11-month old daughter that he threw her into her crib. I'll spare the details, but she died the next day. Her name was Madison McBurney.
This story is first and foremost a tragedy. Anytime a child is killed, especially as a result of abuse or neglect, it is tragic, and this is all the more horrifying because the parent is the perpetrator. This story, however, if it is unique at all, is only so by degrees.
Frustration with children is something every parent knows, especially new parents. No where in the "What to Expect" books does it tell you how to handle when your baby won't eat, won't sleep, won't stop crying, doesn't have a fever or some fluke ailment like the shaft of a pillow feather sticking him through his clothes, and the doctor says there's nothing wrong. No, only experience can teach you what to do then. Contrary to first instinct, it isn't nothing. While the only thing you may be able to do for the child is gently shush and soothe, and maybe run the bath if you've had enough sleep, your first priority is your own sanity.
We all hear jokes about it. "The reason God makes babies so cute is so you don't kill them when they're small," we say. A close friend came up with the gem of a phrase "they're treasures, let's bury them." We laugh at these things and understand them to characterize a universal rite of parenthood and a common thread that connects all parents, usually by grey hairs. Until recently, I was actually horrified by these sayings. They seemed to completely disregard the total awe and absolute love you experience at this precious time. I know now I was simply taking myself way too seriously, but certainly in the context of today's news, they are, once again, horrifying.
I know the frustration of the man who was Madison's dad. Right up to the moment when he lost track of that first priority, his was no different than the daily emotional toil of millions of moms and dads. I have felt it, and come right to the brink. I have held a screaming child and gazed out a second story window and imagined quiet, and hated myself for it. Of course, I was solidly met by reality. There would have been two landings that day if any. Brendan now is still the most frustrating child in our household, but he also has the biggest heart of anyone I know, including all the grandmothers and clergy I've ever met. I told the story of the window the first few times as self-therapy, seeking the validation of my fellow parents, who, while shocked, did not condemn me (bless them), and later as a funny story of real parenting frustration and reward. I also use it as a quiet lesson to myself about how love is tested and practiced, and in this context, it is one of the most valuable experiences I've had.
I have no intention of defending Madison's dad. In his own right, I'm sure he is aware of his mistake, although the consequences for it very likely escape him. In this respect, this is a much larger tragedy. A child is dead, but a family is destroyed. I resist the urge to comment on every story I read like this (see aforementioned soapbox), as they are certainly overnumerous, but this one nagged me as I tried to shake it off.
Maybe that's a good thing. If this story has any impact, let it cause other parents to examine their own reactions and reiterate that first priority during those moments of insanity. Let it, possibly, cause one man or woman to take a timeout, lock the bathroom door behind them and remember their child's smile through the tears, noise, vomit, and poop. Because these moments, the smiles and laughter, the finger paintings and stick-figured heads, the bedtime stories and goodnight kisses and hugs, are as real, and a more abundant part, of the parenting experience than anything that might frustrate us.